As the holidays approach, our personal stress levels go up.
Family gatherings, finances, food, and then the kids are out of school and suddenly everyone is out of their routine. Throw in a special needs child – regardless of the challenges, physical or cognitive – and the holidays suddenly become a gauntlet of stressors for parents. In this season of giving, I’m going to suggest a gift that you can give yourself. It’s a radical concept for some of us, but just hear me out:
The best gift you can give yourself (or another parent) is self-care.
What does that mean? It means taking care of yourself so that you can take care of those you love better. If you had a chronic condition, like diabetes for example, you know that you would need to monitor your food intake and your blood sugar to make sure that you’re operating at your best. If your mental battery is drained and you’re fatigued physically and emotionally, it will become that much more difficult to take care of your children, special needs or not. This is especially important at the holidays as the added stresses of things like finances can magnify the challenges your family faces.
My oldest, as I’ve spoken about in the past, is on the autism spectrum. When he was younger and his speech delay was its most pronounced, I dreaded the holidays. We would go to family gatherings and I would see just how different he was from the typical children around him. I would be alternately embarrassed and angry and feeling guilty for both emotions. It was tough; I knew logically that we were doing everything we could to help and that he would change as he got older, but the stress and the guilt nevertheless lingered. I needed time away from him to gain perspective on the whole situation.
My husband would do his best to make sure I had time to myself and with friends to get away, especially at the holidays, when we all had so much happening. I realized the importance of self-care as I was looking at my child for all of the things he wasn’t rather than all of the things he was. I needed a break; I needed a moment to myself. You may have had a moment like that yourself.
Here are some tips to help you take care of yourself and perhaps head off some of this stress:
Call a Tribe Night Out
Find other moms who also care for children with special needs so you can have someone to relate to, a group to brainstorm with, and a supportive environment for venting. (See last month’s post about support groups for some in-person and online options for finding other parents to talk to.)
Relish the Small Moments
Take time for yourself. Even if all you do is grab coffee alone at Starbucks for an hour, that quiet time alone will help you reset both physically and mentally.
You Have to Schedule It
Make a self-care plan. Have an activity or two that you can do on a regular basis, that part is key, to get away from the stressors of parenting. My outlet is tennis; I usually play a couple of times a week. It’s nice to be able to have my mind and body completely occupied in something active for a couple of hours.
Date Night Is Important
Make sure to have time set aside for you and your partner. Include babysitting or respite care in your monthly budget so you have a chance to reconnect with the person who shares the responsibility for caring for your family with you. That time alone can help both of you unplug and reset before returning to the joy and craziness of parenting children, special needs or not.
My wish for you for this holiday season and for the New Year is that you can use these tips to help you and your family care for each other. Parenting alone is a series of challenges and stresses, but having children with their own challenges can knock all of that up another level. I hope you will take some time during this season to give back to yourself while you’re giving to others. I know how much it has helped me navigate my new normal.
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Jennifer Kelly grew up in the Birmingham area, but migrated to Huntsville for graduate school and put down roots after meeting her husband, Jamie. In addition to being a mom to her two boys, she is a tennis ninja, trivia nerd, freelance editor, and aspiring writer. You can visit her at The Sir Barton Project, a blog about her upcoming book.